The Genre Dance

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April 25, 2013

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines of late.  Sidelines is a collection of essays, speeches, travelogues, and sundry other non-fiction bits and pieces, and it completely deserves and shall have its own review.  However, as I was reading the text of a speech Bujold gave at the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention (Denvention 3), I remembered this half-written piece I started, oh, months ago, in response to a review I read of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance that dealt with the book as a romance.  That review (you can read it here) really bugged the crap out of me, although I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the reviewer was cherry-picking the bits out of CVA that dealt with Ivan’s romance and pretty much giving short shift to the fact that while that book, and many of the Vorkosiverse books, do contain romances for the characters, they do not fall within the boundaries of a romance as it is traditionally defined.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Now I’m not someone who thinks genre is a dirty word—all books are genre books to some extent, and thinking about the ways that a particular book falls within the boundaries of a particular genre doesn’t bother me—you’ll note that our tags in this page usually place a book within some sort of  category: mystery, romance, SFF, biography, etc.  Genre is a handy label that gives the reader an idea of what to expect—certain tropes are common and various elements are expected in certain genres.  So if I were asked, for example, “Tell me about Moby-Dick”, I could say “It’s about this insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale” and that tells you what the story is about, sure, but it doesn’t tell you much about how the story is told—but if I say “It’s an adventure novel about an insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale”, well.  That gives you a much better idea of what you’re in for.  By the same token, I could say “It’s the classic novel about…blah blah blah” and that suggests something completely different in terms of expectations.  As Mark Twain once noted, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”  Most people hear the word classic and their mind goes straight to dull.  Or possibly old-fashioned. Or even good for you.  No one likes literary spinach.

Genre labels have expectations.   It’s then up to the story to meet those expectations, fail to do so, surpass them, or turn them on their heads.  But I think in the above example you can see the danger in them as well.  Useful as the label is, it’s also possible to use them to mislead.  If I really wanted to push Moby-Dick like a crack dealer on an unsuspecting reader, for example, I’d avoid labeling it a “classic” and stick with “adventure story”.  Science Fiction comes with its own issues as a label (which Bujold hilariously details in an essay later in Sidelines where she describes being the only SF author at a book fair and soliciting opinions about why the people there didn’t like the genre.  The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “I only read important books”).  You see the problem with labels… because oh those pesky pre-conceived notions.

Me, I don’t think it’s any crime to like genre books and read them. I don’t think they’re unimportant–in fact, I think they are undervalued as a whole by critics.  Are some of them fluff?  Oh sure. Some of them have no heft to them whatsoever.  I’ve also read some “important” books in my time that are fluffy, or overwritten, or just plain stupid.  That’s not a genre issue, that’s a writer issue.  Genre does not equal bad, or lacking value.  Genre does not deserve to be looked down upon like a hairball the cat left on your new rug.  Poop on that.  Want to read a fluffy cat mystery?  Do it.  Fluff is sometimes exactly what someone needs.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m reading.  I just want to read it.  It’s to escape, not to improve my mind. I compared this need once to the difference between fast food and fine dining.  Sometimes you just want a Happy Meal to fill you up.  You don’t really care if there’s actually any beef in your cheeseburger.  Happily, though, there are just as many substantial books that do have some heft to them.  So if you want that, you can have it.  If you don’t, you don’t have to.  That’s the great thing about our world.  There are so many books, bless ‘em.  Something for every need and occasion.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign

So having established that, let me get back to this idea of genre and cherry-picking.  And Bujold.  Since it was her speech at Denvention 3 that got me revved up on this topic again, I shall use her as an example: if you say to me “What is A Civil Campaign about?” well good grief.  It’s about a lot of things.  It certainly is about romance, and I’m confident that folks who are romance fans will not go away dissatisfied in that respect.  But. It has to be understood that while you can read A Civil Campaign strictly as a romance novel, if you have no prior knowledge of Miles or Ekaterin, or of Kareen and Mark, and have no interest in the Vor caste, or in the complex world Bujold spent 8 previous novels building, you will have merely skimmed the surface of what is, in my opinion, not only a great novel, but a great series.  And you will not understand the nuances of the Miles/Ekaterin romance if you do not understand the world they live in.  Rather than a romance for all time, it becomes just another romance.  And it’s way more than that.

I’m glad to see people recommending Bujold to readers who may not have much experience with SFF, mind you.  I think she makes a great bridge between the romance and science fiction genres in those of her novels where the romance elements are more pronounced. And I want to be clear that I don’t think the author of the original post was trying to pull some kind of fast one on their readers.  But this kind of unintentional thoughtlessness bugs me.  It’s sloppy thinking and it can, as demonstrated above, be misleading.  To treat Bujold strictly as a romance writer is dicey at best because the Vorkosigan books are space opera–character-driven science fiction adventures.  Sure, some of those adventures include some romance now and then, but.  It’s essential to make note of how the science fiction elements influence the romances: how the Vor culture dictates how Miles acts and Ekaterin responds, or how Kareen feels trapped by societal expectations for her gender, or how Donna Vorrutyer has to take a drastic step in redefining herself in order to circumvent tradition and what effect that has on her romantic future.  You couldn’t take these people out of their world and plunk them down in Regency England or midland America and expect their romances to work because their behavior is conditioned by the culture Bujold creates (likewise, taking Regency characters and parking them on Barrayar?  No—for exactly the same reason.)  I’m trying to say—and probably making a hash out of it—that you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff here.  Bujold herself describes ACC as what happens when you put Regency romance and the science fictional world of Barrayar into a blender and push start.  Miles is who he is because of the world that he grew up in—to pull him and his pursuit of Ekaterin out of that world and isolate them would be like trying to grow a bonsai’d skellytum in my backyard.  The romance in Bujold’s novels is the same way: it grows out of the fictional world she’s built, it’s not there in spite of it.  It’s as much a part of the landscape as the Dendarii mountains, and it’s just as organic to the series.

So yes—A Civil Campaign has romance novel elements in it.  It also has elements of political intrigue, feminist thinking, an examination of gender roles, a consideration of how traditions can be bent toward a more progressive future, and all the elements of a comedy of manners.  But it is still science fiction in the same way that Memory may make use of mystery tropes, but the answer to the puzzles—both the mystery Miles is trying to solve and the mystery of why he pulls one of the most boneheaded moves of all time– is found in the science fictional elements Bujold created.  Without those elements, there’s no sparkle in the diamonds the author’s cut.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I think romance or mystery has no place in these worlds—the absolute opposite is true, in fact, and Bujold herself notes in another Sidelines speech that borrowing those tropes helps place her characters into new and interesting situations.  I think they enhance the worlds created in so many ways, mainly by giving the reader familiar touch points to help them settle into unchartered territory, but also by allowing characters who might otherwise be alien to us to have a handle we can grasp.  They serve as bridges to new, unexplored territories, and there’s no reason you can’t have a mystery or a romance on a foreign world–I’m sure they have problems to solve and people they love just like we do.

To give you another example, Dorothy L. Sayers subtitled her final Peter and Harriet novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, “a love story with detective interruptions.”  But here’s the thing: Peter and Harriet have had a rocky 5 year courtship for a variety of reasons.  When they finally do marry, there are adjustments to be made and they have to make them, to figure out how to live with each other without making the other one a lesser person.  It all starts out as playing houses for them, until a murder interrupts their honeymoon.  And wisely, that’s where Sayers laid her conflict—at the heart of their relationship, their working as a team, their varying attitudes toward their responsibilities for the people involved in the death of a not very likeable man.  Without the mystery, there would be no conflict—they’d just continue to play house.  She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers.  But A Civil Campaign is not “A love story with science fiction interruptions” any more than Busman’s Honeymoon is really “a love story with detective interruptions”.   You can’t cherry pick them out of their home genre because that genre is what shapes the romance.

In her Denvention speech, Bujold offers three definitions of genre.  First, it’s “any group of works in close conversation with one another.”  Second, in terms of readers, it’s “a community of taste,” a subject I could probably write paragraphs on but won’t because I’ve already gone on waaaaay too long here.  And lastly, she notes, genre is “a marketing category.”  I agree with all of that.  Again, it’s a handy tool, a way to categorize what we read and to some extent why we read it.  But she also offers a caution, which is what I’m going to end this lengthy screed with, because to me, it perfectly sums up the problems with cherry-picking or trying to cram a book into a category where the fit isn’t quite right:

“The categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren’t perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels become toxic.”

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